Evidence impact: Putting the brakes on a childhood nutrition program with unintended consequences
Even bad news can be useful. In this case, as part of an upgrade of Colombia's childcare centres, a foundation called Fundación Éxito had planned to fund a new nutrition program for children. But it reversed course after an impact evaluation showed that the new nutrition component seemed to do more harm than good. Children's nutrition did not improve and some gained an excessive amount of weight.
The story begins in 2010 when Colombia’s government launched a policy called From Zero to Forever, highlighting the importance of integrated early childhood care for inclusive development. One component of this strategy was upgrading preschools run by the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF), which provide partly-subsidized day care and 60 to 70 percent of daily nutritional requirements to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
ICBF’s proposed upgrade included hiring more and better-qualified staff for the preschools and delivering one-time support for toys, books and other materials. Beyond that, Fundación Éxito, whose strategy is to support and strengthen government programs, planned to add its funding for additional nutritional inputs, teacher training and a reading program for teachers, children and parents.
With support from 3ie, researchers from the University of Los Andes and the Institute of Fiscal Studies convinced ICBF and Fundación Éxito to stagger the upgrades, leveraging Colombia’s national system that mandates evaluation of government policies and programs. This staggered rollout enabled a randomized evaluation to measure effects of different packages of upgrades on children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development and nutritional status.
Evaluation findings showed that ICBF’s upgrade, by itself, had no impact on children’s cognitive development, language development and school readiness, although the combined upgrade did. Neither intervention package helped with socio-emotional development. The evaluation also showed that Fundación Éxito’s additional nutritional component was putting children at risk of gaining excess weight. Children were better off with the old nutrition program.
These findings prompted ICBF and Fundación Éxito to reconsider the proposal to fund the children’s homes. Instead, the foundation, the research team, and ICBF collaborated on another evaluation to refocus investment in parenting support centres.
“It is not easy for institutions to allow themselves to be evaluated, but in this case there was an open and purposeful exercise," said Fundación Éxito’s Executive Director Germán Jaramillo Villegas in a blog on the organization's website. "We believe that this type of evaluation is essential to be able to measure public policies in favor of early childhood.”
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